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Sanfordís son
Activist Raymond Luc Levasseur has been labeled a terrorist by some, a martyr and hero by others. Back in Portland after 20 years in federal prison, heís not about to drift quietly into history

Raymond Luc Levasseur is the second most famous person from my hometown of Sanford, Maine, eclipsed in worldwide name recognition only by Vic Firth, the drumstick king of the known universe. But while many people in the Sanford of my youth had no clue who Vic Firth was, everyone in town knew at least a summary version of the Levasseur story. It went something like this: Radicalized by the racism towards French Canadians that he witnessed growing up in Sanford and Springvale, and then by both his Army service in Vietnam and by time spent in Tennessee state prisons after receiving a five-year sentence for selling seven dollars worth of marijuana in the late 1960s, Levasseur would eventually jump bail on a Connecticut gun charge in 1975, go underground and become a revolutionary. For most of the next decade he was reported to be the intellectual leader of the United Freedom Front (UFF), a group linked to the bombings of government and military facilities, weapons manufacturers, the US offices of South Africaís apartheid government, and major corporations that did business with apartheid, like IBM. The United Freedom Front bombed the offices of Union Carbide more than once, all before that corporation would be forever linked to the atrocities of Bhopal, India, where a chemical leak killed thousands in December of 1984.

Here in Maine, Levasseur was linked to the bombing of Central Maine Powerís Augusta headquarters in May of 1976. The United Freedom Front opposed racism, apartheid, and US policy in Central America and South Africa, as well as the corporate exploitation of the environment and workers. Warning calls were always made, and nobody was ever hurt in a bombing that Levasseur would ultimately be convicted of involvement in, but a reputation for avoiding bloodshed did the UFF little good in the eyes of the FBI. They placed Levasseur on the Ten Most Wanted List in 1977.

When I was a kid and teenager in Sanford, his was an invisible but undeniable presence in town. Although we assumed that he no longer inhabited our streets, we kept an eye out for him just in case. Youíd walk into the post office and there he was on the wall, staring out from the same wanted poster year after year. The face in the picture, the thick moustache and daunting eyes, never changed. Within town, a wide variety of opinion existed on Levasseur. Many in Sanford deplored the bombings and violence with which he was associated, especially after two of Levasseurís reputed UFF associates, Thomas Manning and Richard Williams, shot and killed a New Jersey state trooper during a traffic stop. Levasseur was not there ó he was never charged or tried in any way regarding the shooting ó but at the end of the day a cop was killed, and he and his reputation have suffered by association ever since, which some people say is just how it should be.

Even so, plenty of people in Sanford supported him. If you were a Vietnam vet; if you knew someone fucked up by or killed in Vietnam, or if the war still tore at you; if you were even part French Canadian, which in Sanford is damn near everyone; if you thought the working man was always getting the rough end of the pineapple; if you had done time; if you didnít trust the government ó these were Levasseurís natural constituencies. Remove all the people from Sanford who fit one of those descriptions and there would only be 20 people left. Of course, some supported him just because they liked the idea of a Sanford guy honestly trying to overthrow the government, whether or not they even vaguely understood Levasseurís politics. Nobody was wearing "Run, Ray, Run" T-shirts, but in Sanford we root for the home team, and he was one of ours.

He was never far from our thoughts or conversation. Hereís one example: Once, when I was about 14, a Sanford cop was trying to shoo home me and some friends who were standing around talking outside Edís Quicklunch Truck late at night. I looked at this cop and said, "Why are you hassling us? Shouldnít you be out looking for Ray Luc Levasseur?"

That got a laugh from the Quicklunch Truck crowd, but it wasnít an original line. Iíd heard it said in that very spot to a Sanford cop by someone else in a similar situation, and Iím pretty sure that hadnít been the origin of the quip, either. That old joke was hurled at Sanford cops for the length of Levasseurís tenure as a fugitive, from 1975 until 1984, when he and six others were captured in Cleveland and dubbed the "Ohio Seven."

In his first trial, in New York City, Levasseur represented himself. One of the lead prosecutors was Robert Mueller, who now heads the FBI. Levasseur was acquitted of several charges and won deadlock-induced mistrials on others, but when the government retried him, this time in Massachusetts with a 28-count indictment that included some of the same charges from the New York trial, with some sedition and RICO counts thrown in for good measure, enough of the bombing charges stuck for Levasseur to be given a 45-year sentence. It is worth noting that Levasseur never admitted membership in any group, or involvement with any bombing. When he refers to these claims against him now, he will only speak in the context of the charges that were brought against him by the government at trial.

In 1986, he was sent to the Federal Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, which had already been under lockdown since 1983. In 1995 he was moved to ADX, in Colorado, known as the Alcatraz of the Rockies, the governmentís newest isolation prison, where inmates are locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day, a place where human contact is the rarest occurrence.

Finally he would be transferred to a penitentiary in Atlanta, where Levasseur would serve time until he was granted parole this past August, and released into a federal halfway house in Portland some 20 years after being taken into custody and nearly 30 years after going underground.

After the Portland Press Herald ran its big front-page headline story, August 7, about Levasseurís release, many in Sanford ó and in all of Maine ó for that matter, were stunned to learn that Levasseur would be free. Given what he had been convicted of, and that the government always referred to him and the UFF as domestic terrorists, it seemed incredible that he would be released at all, and indeed, had he been convicted and sentenced after federal guidelines changed in 1987, Ray Levasseur would have never again seen the light of day. On August 6, the day that Levasseur finally returned to Maine, Air Force One landed at the Sanford airport, delivering President Bush to some R&R in nearby Kennebunkport, an irony not lost on many observers.

The halfway house was right around the corner from my day job, so I kept an eye out for him on the corners, and lo and behold, a few weeks after his arrival, I was standing in line in the Forest Avenue Post Office, and there he was, purchasing a money order.

There was no mistaking Ray Luc Levasseur, though the hair was not as long as the old photos, and the moustache was gray. He was startled when I introduced myself; the look on his face was not altogether welcoming, even though he shook my hand. I quickly told him that I was from Sanford, and when I named a mutual friend his expression softened considerably, and he said, "I havenít seen him since the í60s."

I added that I wrote for the Phoenix (he was actually carrying the latest edition) and Iíd love to talk to with him for publication when and if he was ready. He nodded, and explained how he couldnít talk to anybody until November, when he would be released from the halfway house. He would call me then, he said. I wrote down my name and phone number and we chatted only very briefly because the halfway house rules only gave him a few minutes for the postal run, and he couldnít be late returning.

Levasseur laughed ruefully, and said, "When you first came up to me, I thought you recognized me because my face was on the wall in there for so long." I almost told him about how familiar I had been with the poster in the Sanford Post Office while growing up, but thought better of it. Just before the light changed and he headed across Park Avenue, he said, "Hey, Rick, thereís one important thing that you have to know. Iím retired from all that stuff, from anything I did underground. Iíll always hold activism in my heart, and Iíll get back into it in some other way, but as far as that stuff, Iím retired." Then he was gone.

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Issue Date: December 17 - 23, 2004
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